“I am the sugar at the bottom of the English cup of tea. I am the sweet tooth, the sugar plantations that rotted generations of English children’s teeth.
“There are thousands of others beside me that are, you know, the cup of tea itself […] Because they don’t grow it in Lancashire, you know […] Not a single tea plantation exists within the United Kingdom.
“This is the symbolisation of English identity—I mean, what does anybody in the world know about an English person except that they can’t get through the day without a cup of tea? Where does it come from?
“Ceylon – Sri Lanka, India. That is the outside history that is inside the history of the English. There is no English history without that other history.”
- Stuart Hall, Jamaican sociologist.
This quotation highlights Karl Marx’s argument about history: it is not about ideas and personalities but about the economic conditions of human lives, the root cause of alienation.
The British Empire was built upon exploiting others—countries and individuals. Enslavers owned the enslaved, who were not deemed humans with rights and aspirations. The enslaved were simply tools and means of capital accumulation. Nothing more, nothing less.
The British people benefitted in small and big ways, while the enslaved Africans gave their lives for those benefits to happen. Some may choose to forget the past, but Britain was responsible for spreading terror to many across the globe.
India was estimated to be robbed of billions of pounds between 1765 and 1838. This global rape is the essence of what Dr Walter Rodney called the ‘under-development’ of the colonies, so that Britain could be the overdeveloped global power.
As we celebrate our 61st Independence anniversary, let us not forget the seminal work of Dr Eric Williams in his thesis Capitalism and Slavery. Williams stepped past the sanitised account of Emancipation and noted that the triangular trade gave rise to British industry.
Africans were often purchased with British goods and transported on British ships. The plantation system, owners and the enslaved, stimulated new markets for Britain. By the middle of the 18th Century, virtually all British cities were connected to the slave trade or profited from colonialism.
A distinct parallel relationship existed between sugar in the Caribbean, cotton in the South of the USA, and British wealth. Underpinning this development was chattel slavery, the source of the expansion of the Western economy.
As a persistent spokesman against colonialism, Williams insisted that the colonial powers bore the principal responsibility for the economic development of their colonies.
At the time of our Independence, the practice was that Britain would give a ‘golden handshake’—a gift, to the new nation as a goodwill gesture and to help them deal with the economic challenges that lay ahead.
Palmer (2006) records the response of Williams and the Cabinet to this gesture:
“The concept of a parting gift to a departing colony has no place in the thinking of the government and people of Trinidad and Tobago… What we seek and regard as not unreasonable to expect, is to be adequately equipped for the journey on which we embark…”
Britain’s offer was minuscule compared to what Williams had documented as the country’s needs. Williams summed it up: “start off your independence understanding Britain is not going to help you. They have no interest in the West Indies.”
In the bitter negotiations, Britain included a clause that required Trinidad and Tobago to purchase British goods with the funds on loan. Williams perceived the offer in these terms:
“If aid fails to create employment in the country to which it is given, then it is a trap… Economic aid limited to the purchase of the goods and services of other people is nothing more than a perpetuation of colonialism.”
He thundered: “The West Indies are in the position of an orange. The British have sucked it dry, and their sole concern today is that they should not slip and get damaged on the peel.”
Williams was confronting the systemic nature of the colonial empire and the slavery that built it. For enslavers to make a profit, there had to be extra exertion, compared to other labour systems, on the part of the enslaved.
Reverend John Smith, a missionary to Demerara in 1823, reported that the enslaved were overworked to the point of exhaustion. They worked up to 20 hours a day, some not being permitted to sleep but forced to cut sugar cane throughout the night.
Like today’s industry titans, planters understood that their profits climbed when they extracted maximum effort from each worker. The whip was the means of obtaining profit: it was a deliberate part of capitalism. The men and women were mere assets to deliver profit and loss, with the profit going to the British cities.
It is interesting to note that in 1838, the planters in Trinidad received one million pounds as compensation for their emancipated slaves and in 1962, a century afterwards, the Colonial Office was offering the same nominal sum as the parting gift to the country. Their mindset?
What “sort of financial settlement which we would hope to get away with for Trinidad.” (Palmer, 2006).
As citizens of today’s world, we must reflect on our actions to ensure we do not prolong the pain of slavery. We must understand that unseen men in faraway places sometimes decide our fates.
What is the nature of capitalism we embrace? How do we treat the aid that comes with strings? More anon.